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A Small College, Painted Into a Corner

The former Randolph-Macon Woman's College began admitting men this year but drew more alumnae fire for discussing the sale of artworks painstakingly collected over nearly a century.
The former Randolph-Macon Woman's College began admitting men this year but drew more alumnae fire for discussing the sale of artworks painstakingly collected over nearly a century. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Undeterred, the school filed a circuit court motion recently asking a judge for permission to amend Smith's will to allow it to sell some of the artwork that her estate had donated to the college. (Meanwhile, an alumnae group has filed suit to force the school to stop admitting men.)

There's not much time for subtlety on either side.

The school, already on warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools regarding its financial reserves, faces a December deadline to convince the accrediting agency that it has slowed the school's spending rate, shored up sagging enrollment and laid the groundwork for a viable future -- with or without its historic art collection.

Emily Mills, president of the school's alumni association and a voting member of the Board of Trustees, says the school has no easy choices.

"I don't want to sell the art," she says, "but if we don't do something, we're not going to have the college, and we won't have any art at all."

Drive and Vision

Louise Jordan Smith knew a lot about art and a lot about young women, and it was her conviction that the former should be an integral part of the lives of the latter. Which is something that lots of people said back at the turn of the previous century, especially in the upper echelons of small Southern towns. But most people took it to mean something about piano lessons and sketchbooks and easels set up in the shade of languorous Sunday afternoons.

Smith was possessed of uncanny drive and vision, though, and by 1900 she was an accomplished painter who taught at Randolph-Macon, then a tiny, nine-year-old college in a tiny town in Southern Virginia (one of five Virginia schools in the Randolph-Macon System of Colleges and Academies). In 1907, she helped the students buy their first major painting, a portrait of the college president by Chase, then one of the most respected artists in the country. In 1911 -- at the time when the school's most famous student, future Nobel Laureate Pearl S. Buck, was taking classes -- Smith helped found an annual exhibition and instituted the practice of buying one of the best paintings in each show (which was the origin of the Bellows masterpiece). In 1914, she was one of the first professors in the nation to teach a course solely about American art.

When she died, unmarried and childless in 1928, she left almost everything to the school, about $28,000, and established a fund that was to be used to "form a permanent collection of art."

To say the college's arts staff made judicious purchases with those funds would be an understatement: They bought 35 paintings, now worth more than $40 million. Until the late 1970s, those and other artworks hung in school hallways, where students fondly remember smoking, drinking sodas or chatting beneath magnificent American artworks -- and marveling, later on in life, that none were ever damaged or stolen.

"That's one of my favorite memories of being a student," says Mills.

In all, the school has 3,500 works, many of them sketches and drawings, almost entirely by American artists, with an estimated worth of more than $100 million. There are no deep holdings of any one painter's work, but rather a one-of-each collection of major American artists.

The collection is kept in a structure the feds built in 1952 to house the National Gallery's masterpieces in case the Soviets ever sent A-bombs toward Washington. The museum building was kept ready for emergencies -- with hanging racks for the paintings, and sheets, towels and a toaster in an adjacent home for a curator -- but was never used. (There was a test run to see if the trucks could fit in the loading docks, but that was about it.)

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